As anyones who grew up in the 90’s knows, ‘zines (handmade mini-magazines) are the epitome of cool. And thanks to Boston Public Schools teacher Christine Beggan, an incredibly cool group of Gardner Pilot Academy nerds is digging the ‘zine genre.
I first caught wind of the 5th grade ‘zine project when checking my teacher mailbox. Along with the usual school mailings I routinely receive, there was something very unusual and surprising – photocopied fluorescent booklets with hand-written and hand-drawn pages. Even more thrilling, the books were about a sub-culture very near and dear to my heart – NERDS!
While the three ‘zines I received all focusthe subject of nerds, the three youngsters that created them took different approaches.
In Cool Nerds in History, Caricaturist Eva M. profiles six different nerds
with a portrait of each as well of an explanation of why each subject qualifies as a nerd.
Expert portrait artist Alex A. zeroes in on two Steves – Urkel and Jobs – in his brief work Cool Nerds. Alex informs the reader that Urkel is categorized as a “funny” nerd.
And finally, researcher and historian Dorlie wrote Nerd Wars in History in chapters. She provides a detailed etymology of the word “nerd” as well as the transition of the “nerd” from an outcast figure to one who commands respect. Consider the following tidbits:
Excerpt from Chapter 1: The word “nerd” first appeared in 1950 in a Dr. Seuss book called “If I Ran the Zoo”. It was about a creature named Nertile “Nerd”.
From Chapter 2: People usually think about how some kids “become” nerds. Was it the way they were born or was it their development in society?
From Chapter 4: The percentages of approval on nerds were low until the early and mid 2000s. Now approval has reached 100% for the first time in nerd history.
The woman behind the nerd ‘zines, Ms. Beggan, could very well be considered a “nerd” herself due to her accomplishments in vinyl record collecting, filmmaking, and German language scholarship. When her 5th grade class chose”nerds” as their homeroom theme for School Spirit Week, Ms. Beggan dreamed up the nerd ‘zine project as a way for students to research and write about the nerd world, a topic not accessed often enough by children in urban schools.
“I wanted every student to realize that it’s cool to be obsessed with learning. That’s why it’s so important for the students to learn about the achievements of nerds – it’s another way to connect them with school,” explains Ms. Beggan, “My students love science, and they were able to learn more about computer geeks, inventors, and the power of problem solving. A ‘zine was non-intimidating, quick, and immediately accessible to all of my students.”
If you want to take on ‘zine-making for yourself or your classroom, here is a helpful article from one of my favorite online creativity magazines (written by and for teenagers of any age): Rookie!
Top left: Cool Teacher Nerd Ms. Beggan with nerd colleague Ms. Mustonen; Bottom left: A handful of cool nerds; Right: Alex A. and Eva M.
My ELD level 1 & 2 students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0. A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.
Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.
10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”
Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development. Do Now: When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.
10 hands shoot up in the air.“Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.
Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?
5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”
Day 7: Task:Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?
“YOU WANT ME TO FILL ALL THESE LINES??!!”Silence. Writing.
Day 10: Task: Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.
Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.
Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.
By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback, or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.
So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.
We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings.
Post 1: The Preparation
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.
The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.
I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.
I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.
I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:
Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!
I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:
Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.
Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!
That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.
One of the main reasons I love Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman is because the strategies she offers provide meaningful learning opportunities for my students and myself. I often find myself dreading to grade tests or to correct homework. When I hand back corrected work, I see students crumple it into a ball and shoot it into the trash can. Why do I dread correcting? Why do students not care about their work? These observations lead me to believe that when work is not meaningful, it feels like a chore, as though it is unimportant. When students and teachers are allowed to be creative, to think deeply, to give and receive feedback on original thoughts, to have ongoing written conversations, then work becomes meaningful. I love reading the learning logs of my students. When I collect them, I go around the classroom exclaiming, “I can’t wait to read these!” Students find me before school and ask to turn in their log early, “Miss, wait till you read this!” What’s more, I feel like I understand and know my students on a deeper level. The learning logs, autobiographies, and formal writings of students that Countryman described have provided me a view into the mind and thoughts of my students; into the silent world of written text.
Last summer, while combing through math books online, I came across Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman. I ordered the book and when it arrived, immediately began reading it. Writing to Learn Mathematics is a short read that is packed with practical strategies for integrating writing into math class. Each strategy that Countryman outlines is accompanied by numerous student work samples. I didn’t read the book once, but multiple times! December is now upon us and I have had the pleasure of trying out Countryman’s strategies in my 8th grade math classes. We began the year with math autobiographies and are currently wrapped up in learning logs and formal writing in mathematics.
Countryman provides a compelling argument for why we should integrate more writing into math class, she explains that writing enables students to become aware of what they do and don’t know about math. Students are able to connect prior knowledge to new knowledge while writing, summarize their understanding and give teachers insights into that understanding, raise questions about new ideas, reflect on what they know, and construct mathematics for themselves. Countryman thoroughly outlines how to integrate various writing activities into math class including freewriting, learning logs, autobiographies, journals, word problems and problems with words, formal writing, and lastly, how to use writing for evaluation and testing.
I was able to easily adapt and modify all Countryman’s strategies for my classroom. In general I would not say that the strategies that Countryman outlines need to be modified. However, I teach math to 8th graders in a full inclusion setting. What that means is that I have students that are on grade level, above grade level, below grade level, with minor learning disabilities, with major learning disabilities, with autism, that speak English as a first language, and that do not speak English as a first language, and so on. Therefore, any activity that I do in the classroom needs to be accessible to all learners. When introducing the mathematics autobiography to my class during the first week of school, I broke it into three sections, each section taking one day. The first section was titled About Me, the second section was titled, My Family, and the third section was titled, My History of Doing Math. Just as Countryman suggested, the first section is designed to be the easiest, since all students can write about what they know best, themselves! I offered sentence stems and questions if students felt like they did not have anything to write about. Most students easily accomplished part 1 of their mathematics autobiographies.
In the second section, students were also writing about what they know, their family. I had to push students to include details, examples, and to use proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
The last section was the most difficult. I used the language of Countryman, “Tell me about your triumphs and disasters (in math). Go back as far as you can remember. What do you like about learning math? What do you not like?” For some students, that was enough of a prompt. Yet for others, I had to ask more specific questions, “Remember when you were in Mr. Shapinsky’s 7th grade math class? Remember how you learned about proportional relationships? What do you remember about that?” Many students struggled to provide details and examples in this section and had to write three to four drafts before I gave them the beautiful paper to write their final draft on.
Once a student had written the final drafts of all three sections, we glued them to colorful paper and posted them around the room. This created a culture in our classroom and set the tone for our 8th grade math class. So far this year I have not heard the complaint, “but this is math, why do we have to write?!”
The mathematics autobiographies will decorate our walls for the entire year. Parents have enjoyed them during open house and parent teacher conferences. Teachers have remarked, “I have never seen so much writing in a math classroom, this is amazing!” Even the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Tommy Chang, visited my classroom and took the time to read a mathematics autobiography.
I would recommend Writing to Learn Mathematics by Joan Countryman to all teachers, not just math teachers! This is a great read with very practical and meaningful writing strategies for content learning. And what’s more, my students and I are doing meaningful work together that we care about, getting to know each other more, and constructing math knowledge together.
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler
Writing is an integral aspect of Science. It is embedded within the Scientific Method and the Engineering Process. Like experimentation, writing requires precision, organization, and perseverance. Whether crafting research papers, observations, or lab reports, scientific writing
requires students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of many complex procedures and phenomena that people often take for granted. Examining an idea as simple as breathing can lead to an exploration on the human respiratory system, the molecular composition of gas particles, or the interaction between humans and the environment. This curiosity and exploration is a key element of learning in the Science classroom, as it is imagination that drives Science beyond it’s limits.
Students are naturally curious, and a in my classroom I find that the more knowledge they acquire, the more questions they have. My role as a Science teacher is to bring context and structure to questions students have about the world around them. The payoff is found in the “Eureka!” moments that students experience during a carefully planned experiment. However, once these students experience these moments, they must be able to go beyond experimentation and explain what it is they learned. This is where the scientific writer is born.
Scientific writing requires students to ask questions and use experimentation, prior experiences, and content knowledge to develop claims that answer the questions. This is a messy process that requires in-depth research, proper tools, and willingness to engage in trial and error to get the desired results. But while students are eager to “get their hands dirty” with Science experiments, they are paralyzed with anxiety when asked to write about them. As many middle school teachers can attest to, this anxiety comes in form of perceived apathy and work avoidance.
My philosophy on writing in my classroom is as follows: Question everything, persevere until you find an answer, and record every step of the journey. At the heart of all we do, I want to them to embrace the curiosity of the world around them and articulate the discoveries that they work so hard to reach through experimentation. This is difficult, however, as the Boston Public Schools’ middle school science curriculum does not have many lessons on explicitly teaching writing. There is a discrete set of science content standards that I must teach in my subject area, and I struggle with balancing reading, writing, and content specific concepts. Add in the fact that when implementing any new protocols, I also need to differentiate for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and, as a second year teacher, I feel the same paralyzing anxiety around writing as my students. This has required me to look outside of my curriculum, and seek the guidance of colleagues.
In the upcoming weeks I will be working closely with a team of teachers to document my experiences with teaching writing across the curriculum. I will be guided by the principle theories presented in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model in which classroom writing tasks can be presented through two lenses: writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge. When writing-to-learn, students will focus on key concepts ideas as opposed to grammar, spelling or style elements of writing. In Science, this form of writing can be used during quick-writes in a lab notebook, observations during an experiment, or sorter vocabulary-driven writing assignments. Other times, students will be asked to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of concepts covered over the span of several weeks. When preparing these formal writing assignments such as research papers, lab reports and informational papers, students will be employing strategies focused on writing-to-demonstrate knowledge.
It is my hope that utilizing these targeted strategies will help to lessen the anxiety many students feel around writing, resulting an ability to persevere when tackling complex subject matter. I want my students to see that writing is nothing more than thought manifested into a physical form. If they can think it up, then they can write it down.